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The Open: Harrington right at home in St Andrews gloom

By Karl MacGinty

Padraig Harrington, who emerged from a deluge on the first day at Royal Birkdale two years ago to claim his second Claret Jug, will no doubt feel right at home if this year's bleak weather forecast is correct.

As he proved in July 2008 and less than a month later in a storm-disrupted US PGA Championship at Oakland Hills, Dublin's three-time Major champion revels in adversity.

Or, to be more precise, he relishes conditions which erode the resolve of many of his rivals. Like Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and the other hard men of the professional fairways, groans of discomfort in the locker room sound as sweet as a symphony to Harrington.

The weather was so numbingly awful yesterday that the Champions Challenge, in which Harrington and 24 fellow Open Champions from down the years were scheduled to play in a four-hole celebration of the event's 150th anniversary, was cancelled — followed soon after by the closure of The Old Course.

Significantly, perhaps, Carnoustie was just as cold, wet and windy in 2007, when Harrington landed his first Major — and in 1999, when Scotland's Paul Lawrie registered Europe's previous victory in golf's Grand Slam arena.

It's a measure of the current strength of Irish golf that Harrington is just one of three players from our small island to figure large among the ‘home' team's top contenders entering this week's Open.

The other two are Graeme McDowell and his gifted young fellow Ulsterman Rory McIlroy, 21, who insists he has drawn new confidence and inspiration from his good friend's heroics at the US Open in Pebble Beach last month.

McIlroy's record of never shooting over 69 in eight rounds at St Andrews is impressive and with conditions at the Old Course this week likely to resemble the Dunhill Links more than the Open, it could stand him in good stead.

Yet recent history weighs heavily against the Holywood prodigy's prospects.

You have to go back 36 years to find the last man, Tony Lema, to win his first Major on the Old Course.

The seven champions crowned at St Andrews since then, Jack Nicklaus in 1970 and '78, Seve Ballesteros in 1984, Nick Faldo in 1990, John Daly in 1995 and Tiger Woods in 2000 and 2005.

Not even Augusta National can rival St Andrews for atmosphere, yet that is only part of the equation. There is no more complex strategic challenge than the Old Course and those who have already emerged smiling from the blast furnace of the final day at a Major trust themselves best when picking their way through the maze of options it offers.

Tom Watson, hero of Turnberry last summer, brilliantly summed up yesterday the gauntlet any golfer must run to win that first Major title.

“I think it really boils down to handling the pressure,” said Watson, 60, who has lifted the Claret Jug on five occasions and, tantalisingly, missed an eight-foot putt at the 72nd hole last July that would have given him a sixth.

“Look at the US Open at Pebble Beach. It was like a NASCAR race that had a wreck in the final lap. There was just smoke and oil, everything, all over the track.

“It was a mess and, all of a sudden, here comes this car that kinds of winds its way through it all and, bingo, Graeme emerges as the winner.

“That's the type of pressure people are under in a Major championship. That's what causes those wrecks. I've been there before. I've had those wrecks, my personal wrecks out there,” added Watson, who, appropriately enough, blew a gasket on the Road Hole in 1984, surrendering his best chance of victory at St Andrews to Seve.

“The beautiful thing about playing golf over here is that the weather so dictates the score,” he went on.

“And I can assure you, when the weather gets bad and the wind starts blowing, those wrecks are going to happen with frequency.

“You know, one of the great rounds of golf was Padraig's 69 on

Sunday at Birkdale,” Watson insisted. “You don't know how good that round was, how solidly he hit the ball to the hole on that tough golf course in those terrible wind conditions. He just far and away surpassed the field.”

Yet nobody has plotted their way around St Andrews with more certainty that Tiger in 2000 when he steered clear of every one of the 112 bunkers on the Old Course for four days on his way to a whopping eight strokes victory.

Before the barometer dropped one almost fancied Phil Mickelson for his first victory at the Open. After all, the wide open fairways at St Andrews, which offer similar strategic options to Lefty's favourite stamping ground, Augusta. However, Mickelson and his fellow Americans, including defending champion Stewart Cink, are likely to be at too much of a disadvantage in a championship which is expected to spend four days in the grip of bad weather. Ernie Els, champion at Muirfield in 2002 and second to Tiger here in 2000, ranks among the leading contenders but McDowell's prospects would be far brighter had his breakthrough at the US Open not come barely a month ago.

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